Watching the film Godzilla with classmates, USC senior Elton Keung initially saw the scaly creature as nothing more than a monster stomping through the streets of Tokyo, Japan.
Keung was surprised to learn that the creature, created by Japanese film director Ishirō Honda in 1954, symbolizes more than a fantastical mutant dinosaur. One can interpret the monster as a cinematic metaphor for the United States and as an allegory for nuclear weapons. Godzilla represented Japan’s fears about the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the possibility of recurrence. The link between Godzilla – created from radioactive remnants in a U.S. atomic bomb test – and the West became clear to Keung.
“At first, you don’t think the movie relates to things that happened in contemporary times, but it actually does,” said Keung, a USC Marshall School of Business major with a minor in East Asian languages and cultures at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “It had never occurred to me how the historical context played a huge factor in this movie.”
Last fall, Keung and his classmates were the first to take the special topics course “The Fantastic in Modern East Asian Literature and Film.” The course explored a variety of psychological, cultural, political and aesthetic themes that authors and filmmakers weave into their works.
A writer of the “fantastic” genre manipulates reality in a way that evokes a sense of the unknown – a method meant to confront the audience with moments of uncertainty that make it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not real. Through class lectures, readings and films, students learned to approach fantastic literature, fiction and film from a more critical perspective.
The four-unit class open to undergraduate and graduate students throughout USC was taught by postdoctoral research associate Geraldine Fiss in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC Dornsife.
“The subject matter of this class connects closely to parts of my research as a postdoc, which examines how writers and filmmakers create fantastic works to examine cultural and psychological problems and use the power of artistic distortion to bring about cognitive insight,” Fiss said. “There exists a tremendous wealth of wonderful fantastic texts and films in modern Chinese and Japanese culture. I’m glad that I was able to introduce students to some of the best works and that they really liked learning and writing about them.”
Some works of fantastic literature and film feature interlacing themes of utopia and dystopia. While experiencing other fantastic texts, readers or viewers may feel as if they are in a dream state where uncanny, supernatural and bizarre events take place, Fiss said. Techniques such as nonsequential storytelling, stream-of-consciousness narration, distortions of reality and highly imagistic writing enable authors to critique their contemporary times when being literal would be too controversial for the published page or big screen.
“The fantastic is a means to gain psychological insight into what people were thinking and expecting at particular key moments in history,” Fiss said. “Most importantly, the genre is often a response to cultural crises, problems of modernity and to the paradoxes of rapid progress.”
In the class, students analyzed and discussed examples of the fantastic genre from late Qing, China (ca. 1880-1911) and Meiji, Japan (1868-1912), throughout the 20th century and the contemporary moment. Careful readings of a wide variety of literary, cinematic and theoretical texts enabled students to explore the ways in which Chinese and Japanese intellectuals, writers, poets, artists and filmmakers engaged with the most critical issues of their day.
Students read Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” excerpts from Tzvetan Todorov’s 1975 book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre and other critical texts by literary and cultural theorists. This reading enabled students to gain a deeper understanding of the meanings embedded within the texts.
Janina Burgos, a USC Marshall major with minors in East Asian languages and cultures at USC Dornsife and web technology at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, is learning to identify the underlying themes in fantastic literature and film.
“This class will definitely translate to my career since I may work abroad in China or Japan,” said Burgos, a junior who plans to work in human resources. “It has helped me understand the Chinese and Japanese cultures and the mentality of the people.”
For the students’ final papers, topics ranged from analyzing how Japanese citizens identify with dystopian-themed anime films to comparing how the 1988 Japanese-animated cyberpunk science-fiction film Akira and Pixar’s Toy Story franchise have impacted the animation industry.
Some discoveries surprised students.
Gladys Mac, a doctoral candidate in East Asian languages and cultures, learned that Eileen Chang’s The Golden Cangue, the book upon which she focused her master’s thesis, fit into the genre. The book’s themes of terror, survival and its use of symbolism align with fantastic literature.
Mac believes the course is perfect preparation for her future career as a professor of Chinese literature.
“The class covered a large span of Chinese and Japanese literature that I was unfamiliar with,” she said. “I now have a general sense of the evolution of literature in the fantastic genre.”
The class also turned Eugenia Fung on to research. The more fantastic texts and films she analyzed, the more the senior majoring in East Asian languages and cultures wanted to further examine the popular culture and subcultures of Asia.
“This class gradually gave me ideas on research topics,” said Fung, who studied abroad in China last year. “It has me considering whether I should pursue a doctorate and further my research.”